The tank had an interesting role in World War One. The tank was first used at the little known Battle of Flers. It was then used with less success at the Battle of the Somme. Though the tank was highly unreliable – as one would expect from a new machine – it did a great deal to end the horrors of trench warfare and brought back some mobility to the Western Front.

A World War One tank


The idea of the tank came from a development of farming vehicles that could cross difficult land with ease by using caterpillar tracks. However, the British army’s hierarchy was dominated by officers from the various cavalry regiments that existed. At the start of World War One, the first engagement between the British and Germans had involved cavalry near Mons. This seemed to emphasise the importance of such regiments. However, trench warfare had made the use of cavalry null and void. Cavalry engagements fought in mud proved very costly and from a military point of view, hopeless. Despite this seemingly obvious fact, senior military commanders were hostile to the use of armoured vehicles, as they would have challenged the use of cavalry in the field.

The leading light in support of the tank was Lieutenant-Colonel Ernest Swinton. In 1914, he had proposed the development of a new type of fighting vehicle. In fact, it is a common misconception that no fighting vehicles existed in August 1914. The Germans, British, Austrians, Russians and French all had armoured fighting vehicles that could fight on ‘normal’ terrain. But these vehicles could not cope with trenches that were soon to dominate the Western Front. Caterpillar tracked vehicles were already in France as the British used them as heavy gun tractors.

Swinton had received some support from those in authority but many in the army’s General Staff were deeply suspicious. Swinton needed an example of the machine that he believed would alter warfare on the Western Front. By June 9th 1915, agreement was made regarding what the new weapon should be. It should:

  • Have a top speed of 4 mph on flat land
  • The ability to turn sharply at top speed
  • The ability to climb a 5-feet parapet
  • The ability to cross an eight feet gap
  • A working radius of 20 miles
  • A crew of ten men with two machine guns on board and one light artillery gun.

One supporter of the prospective new weapon was Winston Churchill. However, by the end of 1915, his name was not held in high esteem because of the Gallipoli fiasco.

As the stalemate on the Western Front continued, so the drive to find a weapon that could break this lack of mobility became more intense. Most of the original designs were based on designs from the Holt tractor company. However, their vehicles were designed to operate on muddy land but not the churned up landscape of the Western Front. The first ‘tank’ to have any form of caterpillar track was a vehicle designed by Lieutenant W Wilson and William Tritton called “Little Willie”. “Little Willie” was never designed to fight but to serve as a template for development. “Little Willie” developed in to “Big Willie” which started to bear a resemblance to the first Mark 1 seen in the photo. “Big Willie” was rhomboid in shape and had guns mounted in blisters on the sides of the hull.

The military failure in Gallipoli had pushed the emphasis of the war back to the Western Front – to the trenches and the lack of movement. Therefore, any new weapon that might seem capable of ending this stalemate was likely to be better received than in the past.

The start of life for the tank did not bode well. The first model came off the factory floor on September 8th 1915. On September 10th, its track came off. The same happened on September 19th when government officials were watching. However, these officials were impressed as they knew that any new weapon was bound to have teething problems and their recognised the potential that the new weapon had.  Its main weakness was the track system. Tritton  and Wilson designed a new and more reliable version and on September 29th a meeting took place in London that recommended the new weapon should have 10-mm frontal armour and 8-mm side armour. There would be a crew of eight and the large guns would be 57-mm naval guns mounted on the sides. The vehicle would have a speed of 4 mph. “Big Willie” ran with these specifications for the first time on January 16th 1916. Churchill had directly contacted Haig to convince him about the usefulness of the new weapon. Haig sent a major, Hugh Elles, to find out more about the machine and he reported favourably to Haig.

On January 29th 1916, “Big Willie” went through it first major demonstration – under the tightest of secrecy. On February 2nd, Kitchener, Lloyd George and McKenna, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, attended another demonstration. It was at this meeting that Kitchener described “Big Willie” as a “pretty mechanical toy”. However, those close to Kitchener said that he said this as a way to provoke the ‘tank team’ into defending their creation, i.e. that he was deliberately provocative to see what response he got. Whatever the case, by February 12th, 100 “Big Willies” had been ordered by the Ministry of Munitions.

The development of the tank when compared to other weapons was remarkably swift – a testament to the team surrounding the weapon and the drive of Wilson and Tritton. After February 12th, Ernest Swinton went into overdrive to develop a fighting technique for these new weapons. Swinton was very keen that both tanks and infantry worked in co-operation. However, in the early days, it remains clear that even Swinton saw the tank as supporting the infantry in their efforts to break the German front lines as opposed to the tank being a weapon that could do this by itself.

“It seems, as the tanks are an auxiliary to the infantry, that they must be counted as infantry and in an operation be under the same command.”Swinton

In April, Haig informed Swinton that he wanted tanks and crews ready for June 1st – the start date for the Battle of the Somme. This was an impossible request as there were no tanks in production and if there were no tanks, how could crews train on them? Finding crews was also a potential problem as very few people outside of the rich had had experience of mechanised vehicles by 1916. Those who did join the Armoured Car Section of the Motor Machine Gun Service (an attempt to disguise the new weapon) came from the Motor Machine Gun Service or from the motor trade – these people had mechanical skills but no military knowledge!

The abject failure of artillery at Verdun and the Somme meant that General Headquarters ordered the new weapon into use by September 15th 1916. The first tanks arrived in Europe on August 30th but the crews were faced with major problems. One tank commander wrote:

“I and my crew did not have a tank of our own the whole time we were in England. Ours went wrong the day it arrived. We had no reconnaissance or map reading….no practices or lectures on the compass….we had no signaling….and no practice in considering orders. We had no knowledge of where to look for information that would be necessary for us as tank commanders, nor did we know what information we should be likely to require.”

On September 15th, 36 tanks made an en masse attack at the Somme. Originally there had been fifty of these machines but these thirty ton machines could not cope with the harsh lunar landscape of the churned up ground and fourteen had broken down or got bogged down. Regardless of this a new era in warfare had started.

A Mark V tank